I was carrying Nala out of the media center—the cat had been so sound asleep that she hadn't even bothered to complain at me when I picked her up. I checked the clock as I left the room, and couldn't believe that several hours had passed. No wonder my butt was asleep and my neck was so stiff. But being temporarily uncomfortable didn't really matter because I'd actually figured out what I was going to do for the Full Moon Ritual. It was a huge weight lifted from my mind. I was still nervous, and didn't spend too much time considering the fact that when I performed the ritual I'd be doing so in front of a bunch of kids, the majority of whom were probably not thrilled that I had taken over leadership from their buddy Aphrodite. I just needed to stay focused on the ritual itself, and remember the amazing feelings that filled me whenever I invoked the five elements. The rest would work itself out. Hopefully.
I pushed open the heavy front door of the school and walked out into a different world. It was snowing steadily, and must have been for the entire time I was in the media center. The school grounds were completely blanketed by a comforter of downy white. The wind had whipped up and visibility was terrible. The gaslights that marked the obscured path were not much more than glowing pinpoints of yellow against the white darkness. I probably should have gone back in the building and made my way along the school's hall toward the dorm, staying inside for as long as I could, and then making a quick run from the far side of the school to the girls' dorm, but I really didn't want to. I thought about how right Stevie Rae had been. Snow really was magical. It changed the world, made it quieter, softer, more mysterious. As a fledgling, I already had quite a bit of an adult vampyre's natural protection against the cold, which used to creep me out. I mean, it made me think of cold, dead creatures who existed by drinking the blood of the living—totally gruesome, even if I was bizarrely drawn to the thought. Now I knew more about what I was becoming, so I understood that my protection against the cold was more about a heightened metabolism than about being undead. Vampyres aren't dead. They're just Changed. It was humans who liked to fuel the scary myth of the walking dead, which I was beginning to find more than slightly annoying. Anyway, I really enjoyed being able to walk around in a blizzard without feeling like I was going to freeze. Nala burrowed herself against me, purring loudly when I wrapped my arms around her protectively. The snow muffled my steps and it seemed for that moment that I was alone in a world where black and white had mixed together to form a unique color just for me.
I'd only walked a few steps when I sighed and would have popped myself in the forehead if my arms hadn't been filled with my cat. I needed to go by the school spells and rituals store and get some eucalyptus. From what I'd read in the old ritual book, eucalyptus was associated with healing, protection, and purification—three things I thought important to evoke during my first ritual as leader of the Dark Daughters. I supposed I could get the eucalyptus tomorrow, but I was going to need it knotted into a rope as part of the spell I planned to cast, and ... well ... it was probably smart that I practiced so I didn't drop anything during the spell or, worse, suddenly discover that eucalyptus wasn't as flexible as I'd expected and it fell to pieces when I tried to knot it and then I'd turn bright red and want to crawl under the rec hall and curl up in a fetal position crying ...
I shoved that lovely picture from my mind, turned around, and began to trudge back to the main building. That's when I saw the shape. It caught my eye because it didn't belong—and not just because it was unusual that another fledgling was silly enough to be out walking in the snowstorm. What struck me as weird was that the person, because it definitely wasn't a cat or a bush, wasn't walking on the sidewalk. He was heading in the general direction of the rec hall, but was cutting across the far lawn. I stopped and squinted against the falling snow. The person was wearing a long, dark cloak with a hood pulled up like a cowl.
An urge to follow him hit me with such strength that I gasped. Almost as if I had no will of my own, I stepped off the sidewalk and hurried after the mysterious person, who had just reached the edge of the tree line that grew along the outside wall.
My eyes widened. The instant the figure entered the shadows, whoever it was, he or she, began moving with inhuman speed, cloak billowing behind them wildly in the snow-filled wind so that the figure appeared to have wings. Red? Did I see scarlet flashes against glimpses of white skin? Snow stung my eyes and my vision blurred, but I held Nala tighter to me and kicked into a fast jog, even though I could tell that I was being led to the area of the east wall that held the trapdoor. The same place I'd seen the other two ghosts or specters or whatever. The place that I'd told myself I really didn't want to go again, at least not alone.
Yes, I should have turned to my left and marched directly to the dorm. Naturally, I didn't.
My heart was thudding like crazy and Nala was grumbling in my ear when I entered the tree line and continued to rush along the wall, all the time thinking how absolutely insane it was for me to be out here chasing what was at best some kid who was trying to sneak away from the school, and at worst a seriously scary ghost.
I'd lost sight of the person, but I knew I was getting close to the trapdoor, so I slowed down, automatically staying within the deepest shadows and moving from tree to tree. It was snowing even harder now, and Nala and I were covered in white and I was actually starting to feel chilled. What am I doing out here ? No matter what my gut was telling me, my mind was saying that I was acting crazy and that I needed to get myself (and my shivering cat) back to the dorm. This was really none of my business. Maybe one of the teachers was checking the ... I dunno ... the grounds to make sure some moronic fledgling (like me) wasn't wandering around out in the storm.
Or maybe someone had just snuck on the school grounds after brutally killing Chris Ford and abducting Brad Higeons, and now they were sneaking off again, and if I confronted him/her I'd be murdered, too.
Yeah, right. Talk about an overactive imagination.
Then I heard the voices.
I slowed way down, practically tiptoeing forward until I finally saw them. There were two figures standing by the open trapdoor. I blinked hard, trying to see more clearly through the curtain of falling white. The person closest to the door was the one I'd been following, and now that he wasn't running (at a ridiculous speed) I could see that he stood weirdly, crouched down with a hunched-back posture. I shifted my attention to the other figure, and I felt the chill that had been brushing my skin with the snow sink into my soul. It was Neferet.
She looked mysterious, and powerful with her auburn hair flying around her and the snow covering the long black dress she was wearing. She was facing me, so I could see that her expression was stern, almost angry, and she was speaking intently to the cloaked person, using her hands expressively. Silently, I moved closer, glad I had on a dark outfit so that I blended well with the shadows near the wall. From this new position pieces of what Neferet was saying drifted to me on the snow-filled wind.
"... have more care with what you do! I will not ..." I listened intently, trying to hear through the wailing wind, and realized that the breeze was bringing me more than just Neferet's words. I could smell something, even over the crisp scent of falling snow. It was a dry, moldy smell, weirdly out of place in this cold, wet night. "... much too dangerous," Neferet was saying. "Obey or ." I lost the rest of the sentence, and then she paused. The cloaked figure responded with a weird, grunting sound that was more animal than human.
Nala, who had been curled up under my chin and seemed to have fallen asleep, again, suddenly whipped her head around. I ducked even farther behind the trunk of the tree in whose shadow I was hiding as Nala began to growl.
"Shhh," I whispered to her and tried to pet her into being calm. She quieted, but I could feel that the fur on her back had lifted and her eyes were narrowed to angry slits as she stared at the cloaked person.
The guttural sound of the mystery man's voice had my skin crawling. I peeked out from behind the tree in time to see Neferet raise her hand as if she was going to strike him. He cowered back against the wall, causing the hood to fall from his face, and my stomach clenched so hard I thought I might throw up.
It was Elliott. The dead kid whose "ghost" had attacked Nala and me last month.
Neferet didn't hit him. Instead she gestured violently at the open trapdoor. She'd raised her voice, so everything she said carried to me over the wind.
"You may not have any more! The time is not right. You cannot understand such things, and you may not question me. Now leave here. If you disobey me again you will feel my wrath, and the wrath of a goddess is terrible to behold."
Elliott cringed away from Neferet. "Yes, Goddess," he whimpered.
It was him; I knew it was. Even though his voice was rough I recognized it. Somehow Elliott had not died, and he had not Changed into an adult vampyre. He was something else. Something terrible.
Even as I thought how disgusting he was, Neferet's expression softened. "I do not wish to be angry with my children. You know that you are my greatest joys"
Revolted, I watched as Neferet moved forward and caressed Elliott's face. His eyes began to glow the color of old blood, and even from a distance I could see that his entire body was trembling. Elliott had been a short, pudgy, unattractive kid with too white skin and carrot red hair that was habitually frizzed out. He was still all those things, but now his pale cheeks were gaunt and his body was hunched, as if it had curled in on itself. So Neferet had to bend down to kiss his lips. Totally grossed out, I heard Elliott moan in pleasure. She straightened and laughed. It was a dark, seductive sound.
"Please, Goddess!" Elliott whimpered.
"You know you don't deserve it."
"Please, Goddess!" he repeated. His body was shivering violently.
"Very well, but remember. What a goddess gives, she can also take away."
Unable to stop watching, I saw Neferet lift her arm and brush back her sleeve. Then she ran her fingernail up her forearm, leaving a slender scarlet line that immediately began to bead with blood. I felt the draw of her blood. When she held out her arm, offering it to Elliott, I pressed against the rough bark of the tree, forcing myself to stay still and hidden as he fell to his knees before her and, while he made feral grunts and moans, began to suck Neferet's blood. I tore my eyes from him to look at Neferet. She'd thrown her head back and her lips were parted as if having the grotesque Elliott creature suck the blood from her arm was a sexual experience.
Deep within me I felt an answering desire. I wanted to slice open someone's skin and ...
No! I ducked completely behind the tree. I would not become a monster. I would not be a freak. I couldn't let this thing control me. Slowly and silently I started back the way I'd come, refusing to look at the two of them again.
Ew Ew Ew Ew Ew
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